Fantastic Fest: ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ Shows Strong Directorial Promise in a Picture That Amounts to a Question Mark
The moment that the closing credits started to roll for Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio I looked to my right to tell my colleague that I don’t think I’d ever sat through a horror picture and felt absolutely nothing. Not until then, anyway. I think my heart pumped more in saying that sentence than it did at any moment watching the picture. I don’t know if that was the intention of the movie. I also don’t know if it was intended for the movie to be considered a horror movie. It’s a movie about the making of an Italian giallo film, but it more closely resembles a Lynchian psychological thriller. Only without the thrill part.
Toby Jones is Gilderoy, a talented sound engineer brought in to work on a film that he thinks is about horses. The title of the film he is supposed to record and mix the audio for is called The Equestrian Vortex. On arrival and upon viewing the first clip he realizes his presumptions were way off base and he’s a bit out of his league with the content of the film being a horror picture about the gruesome torture of a witch by a priest. The audience is never privy to seeing any of the soundless film and when you hear about what the scenes entail you might be thankful that you don’t.
From the moment Gilderoy arrives he feels out of place and uneasy about the whole thing. He consistently has to ask about reimbursement for his plane ticket, and the fact that he’s non-confrontational doesn’t help his stance to simply walk away from the project when he knows he should. He isn’t incapable of producing sounds to replicate that of a person being stabbed or drowned in boiling water – and seeing how all of this is done is actually really fascinating – but the film is not his cup of tea as a person (let alone as a professional) and neither are the personalities of the filmmaker who desperately wanted to hire him for his “vision” or the producer who does everything he can to make Gilderoy remain in his shell.
The longer Gilderoy stays in this uncomfortable environment the more he succumbs to a mental breakdown and soon finds it difficult to differentiate between his own life and that of the picture. Eventually, they both start to represent one in the same.
In retrospect the film feels more accomplished than the immediate reaction I had. It sticks with me in a way that helps its appeal grow so that it can be appreciated even though it wasn’t in any way effective. I can recall a lot about it, so it obviously isn’t forgettable or throwaway and a lot of that has to do with Peter Strickland having a vision for what he wanted and executing it well, even though it isn’t directly apparent to me what that is. It’s an obscurely comatose film. It doesn’t noticeably fluctuate in its tone or intensity and I gather that was deliberate, because for a film about the behind-the-scenes of recording film Strickland knows what people put in horror films to make them frightening, and knows how important sound is to the audience’s reaction. Yet, in the display of his own picture he chooses not to include any of it.
It’s in that apparent knowledge of the genre that makes me think the intent of the picture is not to make the pulse pound (at all), but to bend the mind. It certainly accomplishes that and its technical savvy is impressive to the point that I look forward to seeing what Strickland does next. I wouldn’t have minded a few extra heart beats in the experience though. Even Lynch’s most obtuse films have a few moments that raise some hairs.
The Upside: Fantastic in the technical aspects of cinematography and especially sound-mixing. Toby Jones is as reliable as he always is and the movie never really bores you.
The Downside: By the time it’s over the overall feeling is that you sat through one really long ellipsis.
On the Side: I kept wondering whether the materials used in the film to replicate the sounds of The Equestrian Vortex were the same materials used to record the sounds being shown. As in, do you record the sounds of someone chopping watermelon with a machete to be the sound of someone chopping watermelon with a machete to be the sound of someone chopping a body to pieces? Or, did they chop a body to pieces to be the sound of chopping watermelon with a machete to be…okay…this film is deeper than I thought.